Lidl is coming to the Cattle Market site and Aldi will soon open a new store at Kingsmead, on the Shaftesbury side of Gillingham. ThisIsAlfred asked local traders how they felt about two new discount retailers on our doorstep.
Some Shaftesbury shopkeepers told us that the opening of a new Lidl presented an opportunity for our independent retailers. But Mark Stevens, owner of Prime Cuts Butchers on Salisbury Street, doesn’t want a new supermarket in town. He’s been a long-time opponent of Tesco. And Mark believes firmly that a Lidl, which will soon request planning permission on the adjacent site, will take business from all of the town’s traders.
“Any trader will tell you it’s not easy out there,” Mark said. He’s dismayed by North Dorset Council’s decision to sell the Christy’s Lane land to the German discount chain. “They say they’re going to help local businesses, but we don’t see much evidence of that. They could have done something very sensible with the site, which would bring people into the town, but they haven’t. Supermarkets are very powerful. They always get what they want.”
Today’s Sunday newspapers reported that Tesco were shelving their meat and fresh fish counters at many stores. We don’t know whether this will affect Shaftesbury, yet. If it does, Mark might be pleased but his concerns about competition from the new Lidl and Aldi stores go beyond just their food offer.
“It will definitely affect the sole traders. Not just foods, but clothing and all items,” said Mark. “We’ve now got history that supermarkets kill towns. It’s not a massive town. If you want an alternative to Tesco, you’ve got Waitrose four miles down the road,” Mark said.
Chamber of Commerce Chairman, David Perry, recently took part in a small, two-man placard-wielding protest over the loss of free car parking on the Cattle Market site due to the sale to Lidl. Despite that, David believes that the Lidl store offers an opportunity for town centre traders.
“I think the biggest threat to Shaftesbury is if we didn’t have a competitive supermarket offer,” David said. He cited the recent Carter Jonas report, commissioned by the district councils in Dorset. The study revealed that a proportion of Shaftesbury shoppers drive to other towns to stock up at supermarkets. “With a competitive supermarket here, we will save some of that leakage,” explained David. “It means that people will come to Shaftesbury instead of going somewhere else. We need to encourage people who come into Shaftesbury – to shop in Lidl – to use some of their spare parking time to pop down to the High Street and use specialist shops to buy the stuff they can’t get in a discounter.”
The Cattle Market site is within walking distance of the town centre and David argues that it is better that Lidl opens there, rather than building on a greenfield site at the edge of town. “If a discounter came to Shaftesbury’s outskirts that would be a ‘lose lose’,” he said. “A site integral to the High Street will attract people into the centre of Shaftesbury and hopefully they’ll shop in the High Street.”
Anita Horak is the co-owner of High Street clothing and homeware shop, Kit and Kaboodle. Anita also believes that the proximity of the proposed Lidl store could encourage people to venture into the town centre. “Maybe that is why it is positive that the Aldi and the Lidl are and not in the main street,” Anita said.
Shaftesbury’s Tesco appears to have recently refocused its range on lower price products and with two discount supermarkets coming to our area, David believes that our High Street can compete by offering something different. He suggests that Shaftesbury’s independent shops could stock unique products and focus on customer service. “Every time I see the supermarkets dumbed down it brings joy to my till. A bigger threat would be a high quality supermarket. The supermarkets can only buy from very big suppliers. They can’t buy from small artisan producers,” David said.
David offers his own business, Shaftesbury Wines, and the weekly cheese sales from the former Turnbull’s manager Carolyn Hopkins and her mobile Truckle Truck as evidence of how independents can compete with the retail giants. “You can’t get a local cheese in the supermarket. You can buy mass produced cheese there but you can’t buy small artisan cheese. It’s the same with wine. The producer of one of our wines makes 370 bottles a year. That wouldn’t go into one supermarket, let alone a chain of them,” David said.
Paul Rowe has worked at Abbotts Greengrocers on Bell Street since 1967. A supermarket traded from across the street for twenty years of that time. But Paul found the Co-op and then Budgens good for business. “You’re better off near them. If one opened here I’ll be happier than on the Cattle Market, because it brings people to your door,” Paul said.
He believes that his ability to hand pick his produce range has helped him to compete with the bigger retailers who have greater buying power but far less flexibility. “We might sell quite a few things that you wouldn’t necessarily get in a supermarket. All our apples tend to be English. Most of our veg is English. Through the summer all of our salad is English, whereas the supermarkets tend to go for Dutch because it’s easier for them. Holland supplies probably 90% of the salad in this country.”
Mark Stevens warned me that Lidl and Aldi’s clothing range could compete with town traders, but Ian Gale, manager of Squires Menswear, doesn’t feel that the two new stores will take his trade. He says that his customers appreciate the personal touch.
“I think we offer something totally unique. We do a massive range, from very small sizes up to the men sizes 2X, 3X, 4X and suits up to size 60. I don’t think there’s anybody out there that does that. I think this store will go from strength to strength, no matter what is happening in the High Street,” Ian said.
Butcher Mark remains unconvinced by David Perry’s theory that customer experience and choice can compete with low cost. “It’s a bit of a fairytale comment because people are fickle. People shop with their pockets. They will go to supermarkets. Lidl buy very cheap and local traders will not be able to compete with it,” he cautioned.
But Mark is joining David, Anita, Ian and Paul in highlighting the advantages of shoppers supporting their independent retailers. “With us you get a package. You get a decent quality product, sourced locally and the service you get from us is second to none. I’m sure a supermarket would not advise you how to cook a product or advise you on each cut. I have professionals that can advise on many matters,” Mark said.
Of course many Shaftesbury residents are understandably concerned about the health of our High Street. It’s no wonder when national media is continually presenting images of boarded-up shop windows, up and down Britain. So does Shaftesbury need to worry?
Anita is adamant that Shaftesbury’s High Street is not in trouble. “It actually isn’t dying. Maybe we just need to have more to offer them – something different. I think that’s what draws people. It certainly draws people into our business,” said Anita.
Interestingly, no Chamber of Commerce members have contacted David Perry to voice their concerns. “No one has actually come to me and said ‘I’m really worried about the High Street in Shaftesbury’. A lot of the public come in and say, ‘Oh my God, it’s the death of the High Street’ and I get very cross about that. I say, ‘What do you mean?’ They say ‘we’ve got three empty units’. I explain that we have had four new shops open. People read in the newspapers that high streets are boarded up and closing and they don’t walk down our High Street with their eyes open and notice the hundred shops which are thriving, some of which have been here for fifty years,” said David.
It’s fair to say that there are fewer empty units in Shaftesbury, compared to many other towns nearby. The old Turnbulls shop will soon open as new business. Anita’s Kit and Kaboodle shop is expanding into the larger, former Superbooks store next door. And six bidders have put offers in for the former Budgens supermarket, although none of them have revealed their intended uses yet. The charity, Cats Protection, will soon take over the former Age UK shop.
David views that as a ‘like for like’ replacement. “There’s this lazy cliché that says ‘the death of the high street’ every time some big out-of-town showroom closes or a city centre store fails,” said David. “It’s the big nationals. We’ve seen the recent closure of Edinburgh Woollen Mill in Shaftesbury, a big national with a very large chunk of real estate in the middle of our High Street, which probably didn’t belong there in the first place.”
It’s no secret that the Chamber of Commerce has been unhappy at the unkempt state of that High Street shop. The decorative decay has been blamed on a disagreement between the owner and the chain. “It’s a beautiful building but at the moment, it is quite ugly because it’s so rundown. Hopefully, it’ll be redeveloped into something worthwhile and attractive,” David said.
So it seems that, at the moment, the worrying national headlines don’t mirror the situation on our High Street. And Anita thinks it’s important to convey that message. “We mustn’t be negative about it. I do think that if shop owners stay positive, other people will be positive because they would want to come in and support.”
Within the next year we’ll know how two competing low cost supermarkets, within minutes of most Shaftesbury residents, will change our town’s retail offer, it at all. Inflexible and costly leases and the impact of online sales are also contributing towards rapid change within the UK retail sector. And whatever happens, Brexit could bring further challenges.
But unlike Brexit, Shaftesbury shoppers can directly influence what happens next with every transaction they make. Whether we want to purchase unique goods or cheap products, bespoke items or bulk buy, where we chose to spend our money in Shaftesbury will ultimately determine our town centre’s fate. We have the power to decide, with the pound in our pockets. Spend wisely, Shaftesbury.